Harold Robbins’ 1981 bestseller Goodbye, Janette is a new low for a writer I thought couldn’t get any worse.
The book opens as the Allies are about to take over occupied France. A French collaborator named Maurice and a German general are preparing to escape separately.
They have put Jewish companies they operated during the war in the name of the beautiful Polish woman the General rescued from the concentration camps.
By convincing his uncle that he worked undercover for the Allies, Maurice will assure he inherits the title Marquis be Beauville. Then he’ll marry Tanya, giving her and her daughter, Janette, French citizenship. The General will join his family in South America.
When life returns to normal, all parties will profit.
That might have become a good novel.
Robbins turns it into a visual encyclopedia of sexual perversions.
After literally taking a whipping from Maurice, Tanya outsmarts him. They remain married, live more or less under the same roof.
Tanya isn’t aware that Maurice has started molesting Janette until she becomes pregnant after a week of being raped and beaten by Maurice and his male lover.
Depending on your gender, Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club is either about the ultimate high or the worst degradation.
An interview fabricated by Sharon Field’s PR agent reveals Hollywood’s “Love Goddess” longs for an ordinary man to love her.
Adam Malone, a part-time grocery clerk and wannabe writer, enlists three other equally ordinary, and equally gullible men to kidnap Sharon believing if she meets them, she’ll willingly have sex with them.
The four agree if Sharon won’t willingly participate, they’ll release her.
Once they have Sharon in an isolated mountain cabin, Adam’s quixotism is trampled by his three accomplices’ sex drive.
The men tie her down and rape her.
One beats her.
Using her dramatic skills and retentive memory, Sharon fights back.
A less skillful writer than Wallace would have reduced the kidnappers to stereotypes. Wallace makes each of them distinct individuals whose behavior is as plausible as it is despicable.
He also makes clear that when sex is used to sell entertainment, the entertainment industry must accept some blame if people believe the stories they’re told.
Wallace blows his superb plotting with what may possibly be the most implausible ending on any 20th century novel.
The Fan Club by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster  511 p.
1974 bestseller #10. My grade: B.
An Oakland, CA, bookstore owner sells a pre-release copy of The Seven Minutes to undercover cops who arrest him for selling pornography.
Shortly thereafter, a college boy from a good family confesses to rape and murder. He claims reading the French-printed copy of the novel, which was banned worldwide as pornographic and blasphemous, was behind his assault.
Fearing he’ll be left with thousands of unsaleable books, the publisher hires his friend Michael Barrett to defend the bookstore owner.
The District Attorney realizes that by prosecuting the case he can muster support for his planned run for Congress.
Despite its sexy topic (the banned novel relates a woman’s thoughts during seven minutes of sexual intercourse) I suspect many readers found The Seven Minutes over-hyped.
Although there is graphic sex in the novel—and some scuzzy lowlife characters—it’s a small portion of the page count.
The meat of the story is the exhausting legwork the defense slogs through to build its case.
Irving Wallace gives Barrett long passages to recite from cases and legal scholars. Unless Barrett has a photographic memory, the quotations not only interrupt the story flow, but are implausible.
If you’re interested in the censorship issues, I suggest you read The Seven Minutes once for the story, then go back to examine the legal arguments.
The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace
Pocket Books, 1969. [paper] 630 p. 1969 bestseller #6. My grade: B.
In 1922 Edith M. Hull’s novel The Sheik placed second on the bestseller list, up from sixth place the year before. Except as an historical curiosity, The Sheik is not worth reading.
However, with its exotic setting in the North African desert and it’s scandalous story about a British woman kidnapped and raped by a swarthy tribal commander, the novel seemed tailor-made for the cinema.
In 1921, it was turned into a black and white movie staring Rudolph Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The film version is available online from Black and White Movies.
Orphaned as an infant, Diana Mayo was brought up by a much older brother, who treated her as if she were a boy.
When she reaches adulthood and financial independence, the fearless and foolhardy Diana goes for a month into the North African desert accompanied only by native camel drivers and servants.
She is captured by the eponymous Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. He rapes her, subdues her, and commands her obedience.
Ahmed brings her back by force.
In her exhaustion, Diana realizes she loves Ahmed for his strength, brutality, and animality. But horrors! Ahmed’s a different race and color.
Meanwhile, Ahmed’s jealousy of his long-time friend Raoul de Saint Hubert makes the Sheik realize he loves Diana.
Raoul tells Diana that Ahmed is not an Arab at all, but half English, half Spanish. The news assures Diana she can live happily with her Sheik. Apparently being raped is OK as long as the rapist is a European.
This is ridiculous stuff, but author Ethel M. Hull keeps the story moving so you don’t realize how absurd it is until you’re read so much of the book that you might as well finish.
I’d always assumed Peyton Place was a salacious novel. It’s not. Sex figures in the plot, but the novel’s not about gratuitous sex.
The story is set just before World War II in a small New England town with all the usual small-town characteristics, notably gossip, grudges, and inbreeding.
There is the usual cast of characters: the dedicated doctor, the cynical newspaper editor, the bullying industrialist, the spinster school teacher, the poor-but-deserving young person.
The central event of the novel is Lucas Clark’s rape of his stepdaughter, Selena. Everyone else in Peyton Place gets tangled in the events that follow.
The novel might not have caused any raised eyebrows if it had been set in the South. We don’t associate slum lords, tar paper shacks, and shantytowns with Connecticut villages. The idea that poor white trash like Clark and his drunken pals live in rural towns graced by pristine, white church steeples is unsettling, almost obscene.
Author Grace Metalious writes about the entire town but fails to make readers care about any of its residents. There’s enough story to make a TV mini-series, but not enough character development for an enduring novel.
By Grade Metalious
Simon & Schuster, 1956
#2 on the 1957 bestseller list
By Love Possessed covers 49 hours in the life of Arthur Winner, a respected lawyer in a small, rural New England town in the early 1940s.
James Gould Cozzens puts readers inside Arthur’s head. They see the story unfold through his eyes. They also hear what Arthur thinks and feels about what’s happening.
Since there’s no narrator to provide context, readers have to figure out who is who and what’s going on. That’s not easy.
At times, By Love Possessed reads more like By Semicolons Obsessed. This is dense prose, folks.
If you dig long enough, the plot that emerges is this: Ralph, the brother of one of the secretaries in Arthur’s office, is accused of rape. Arthur jumps in with all lawyerly speed. While working on Ralph’s problem, Arthur learns he’s got a few problems of his own. Meanwhile, unhappy with lawyerly speed, folks take things into their own hands, bringing the plot to a climax while Arthur fritters.
This novel could have been a lot better if it had been 200 pages shorter. Cozzens got so wrapped up in producing a literary work, he forgot about telling a story.
With ruthless editing, this could have been a great novel.
By Love Possessed
By James Gould Cozzens
Harcourt, Brace, 1957
#1 bestselling novel for 1957
My grade: C